Usual Suspects

Marin’s political elite

By Dick Spotswood

IN POLITICS, “clout” refers to someone who has the skill to actually get a project accomplished. Of those elected to public office, the best learn the skill of working with others. This elite has clout. These men and women, owing to the talent of persuasion, toughness, or the power of their thinking, can move a concept from notion to result. Without these officials, public affairs grind to a halt amid constant meetings and pointless studies.

Who are the five most powerful elected officials in Marin County? Eligibility for the list ranges from our member of Congress, to a supervisor, city or town council member, school board trustee, judge, or anyone elected to local office. Statewide officials, like Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer move on a different plane. For elected officials to have nationwide clout, they need to show leadership outside their municipality or district.

Such a list is constantly in flux. New people come to office, and it takes a few years for them to see if their potential materializes. Some, like former Assemblymember Kerry Mazzoni and Supervisor Gary Giacomini, leave the fray, yet their clout lingers. Others outside of elected office have as much clout as anyone in office, but that’s a different list. In my personal list of the top five most powerful elected officials in Marin in 2001, I include the following elected officials, in alphabetical order:

San Rafael Mayor Al Boro: Among his colleagues, Boro is the most respected of Marin County’s 55 mayors and council members. It has nothing to do with being mayor of Marin’s largest city. In the past, the top San Rafael post has not necessarily carried much clout outside the Mission City. But Boro understands that every council member has a duty to become involved in issues beyond his or her city’s boundaries. He is one of the few local officials to stick his neck out by backing real transportation improvements. Downtown San Rafael has begun a renaissance under his tutelage, which is proof that Boro has the moxie to make things happen.

Supervisor Hal Brown: Marin’s senior county supervisor, Brown has a well-earned reputation as a fierce defender of the interests of his 3rd Supervisorial District. By all rights, Brown should be the undisputed leader of the board. If he cares about the issue, he fills that role. Brown is frugal in picking issues in which he wants to invest his political capital. He excels in spiking what he regards as foolish initiatives. With gritty common sense, the Ross Valley supervisor can spot a turkey a mile a away.

Marin Superintendent of Education Mary Jane Burke: The job of county superintendent doesn’t carry much real power, since every public school in Marin operates within its own independent school district, with its own superintendent and school board. Burke’s job is limited to coordinating the 11 local school districts. Her power derives from the respect she has earned across the county. A gentle suggestion from Burke often ends up as the final decision. Her credibility exceeds the closed world of academic politics. A few years ago she was a rumored candidate to succeed Mazzoni in the state Assembly, and she would have been hard to beat. When the Sausalito School District was imploding, Burke moved quickly to set up a trusteeship of the district. It was a bold move that worked.

State Sen. John Burton: As president pro pem of the California Senate, Burton is the second most powerful person at the state Capitol. As a former member of Congress and the state Assembly, Burton learned every lesson that his brother, the legendary Rep. Phil Burton, ever taught him. Burton’s focus is on statewide issues, but he is too smart a politician to ignore the Marin portion of his 3rd Senate District. Power, clout, whatever the word, Burton has it in spades. Few people in politics have his ability to make things happen. The trick is to get him interested, but if he cares, it will happen.

Supervisor Cynthia Murray: The freshman supervisor is starting to come into her own. Perhaps the most pro-business supervisor, she has shifted the board’s orientation to include a stronger business reference. She has an excellent working relationship with the Novato City Council, the only city council in her Novato-centered district. This gives her the freedom to expand her influence countywide. Not flashy, Murray has the smarts to know what she wants, and the toughness to fight for it.

Dick Spotswood is a political commentator on KRCB and author of the ‘North of the Bay’ column.

From the February 15-21, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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